Brigid Duffin and Sean Scantlebury in Ballet Theatre Company's The Nutcracker. Photo by Thomas Giroir, Courtesy Exit 12.

Minding the Gap Year: Without a Company Contract, These Three Dancers Found Ways to Keep Their Careers Going

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Pointe.

After two years as an apprentice with Charlotte Ballet, Lauren Fagone was excelling and expecting to be promoted. But that April, Fagone, now a leading dancer with Richmond Ballet, was notified that there were no available company positions. Even worse, audition season was already over. With no job prospects, Fagone was left in a limbo that most dancers dread: a gap year.

Whether you ended your summer program empty-handed, lost a job unexpectedly or simply had bad luck during audition season, the prospect of a year away from company life—especially when you are just entering it—can seem terrifying. Yet even though you can't control the decisions of artistic staff, you can make the most of the situation by finding a support base, structuring a consistent training regimen and working towards your long-term goals. Besides having more time to train intensely and be available for more auditions, a year off (or even two) can lend itself to personal, intellectual and social growth. Below, Fagone and two other dancers share how they took charge of their gap year—and how it benefited them.

Brigid Duffin, freelance dancer

By the time Brigid Duffin made the decision last year to leave Sarasota Ballet, where she was an honorary apprentice, audition season was mostly over. Though she received a last-minute offer from Ballet Tucson, she was afraid of being too far away from an audition hub to go for her dream jobs. Instead of giving up, Duffin decided to double down and find the drive to keep her career moving forward. To save money and be close to New York City, she moved back into her family home in New Jersey, which she had not lived in since leaving for San Francisco Ballet School seven years prior. In late summer, she auditioned for Exit12 Dance Company, a small contemporary ballet troupe based in NYC, and booked a Nutcracker gig. Four days a week, her day begins with technique class and ends with a long shift at a local coffee shop. The other three days she commutes into the city to rehearse, take more classes and, of course, audition.

Duffin admits that freelancing's instability, as well as juggling a side job, can be stressful. On the days she travels to NYC, she often leaves her house at 5 am and gets home by midnight. "I like a strict schedule and knowing what I am going to do," she says. "I have had to find an inner motivation because no one keeps track if I am in class. You wake up and are tired from your jobs and you have to keep going."

Duffin keeps a big audition binder with tabs separating open auditions from video submissions, and a pocket to store a calendar and her online research. Duffin believes that her work and time onstage with Exit12 have kept her in the right mindset for getting her next job. Pending the outcome of her auditions, she might move to NYC and commit fully to freelancing.

Kathryn Meeusen, BalletMet

After a year in Tulsa Ballet's second company, BalletMet's Kathryn Meeusen still felt uncomfortable in a professional setting. Knowing she was unlikely to be promoted, she began auditioning in earnest. "The only positive responses I received were from companies I wasn't truly interested in," says Meeusen.

She realized she would need to take a step backward, to focus on strengthening her body and address other gaps in her training, in order to achieve her future goals. On a whim, Meeusen had sent an application to the Joffrey Ballet School's Ballet Trainee Program in New York City while she was auditioning for companies. She hadn't given it much thought, but when the acceptance arrived with a full scholarship, it felt like serendipity. Her parents' financial support, which paid the rent on her tiny studio apartment and living expenses, allowed her to dive into days of uninterrupted classes. Meeusen's schedule began with yoga or Pilates, followed by technique class, pointe and variations with her trainee level, along with rehearsals for upcoming performances. In the evening, she would take the technique classes offered for younger dancers.

Like Duffin, Meeusen was free to hit audition season hard when it came around again, auditioning every weekend. When she felt frustrated, she turned to her trainee program directors, Davis Robertson and Era Jouravlev, for guidance. "They spent a lot of time with me, kept me grounded, answered my questions," she says. "I also made great friends—you get to know people doing auditions and there is camaraderie in that." She eventually landed an apprenticeship with Ballet West, and later danced with Ballet San Jose before joining BalletMet. She credits her extra year of training as essential to her later success. "My strength made a huge jump," says Meeusen. "I was in better shape to audition."

Lauren Fagone, Richmond Ballet

When Lauren Fagone was offered an apprenticeship with Charlotte Ballet her senior year of high school, her parents supported her decision to take it and get her diploma while working with the company. But when she found out, post-audition season, that she wouldn't receive a corps contract, her parents suggested that she go back to school to figure out the next step in her career. But it was even too late to apply for college. Fagone called Indiana University's dance department anyway, explained her situation, talked her way into an audition class and gained last-minute acceptance into the program.

Fagone found that IU ran very similarly to Charlotte Ballet, with company class in the morning, followed by pointe and daily rehearsals. Academic classes were held in the evening. "I had the opportunity to do amazing work, both Balanchine and contemporary repertory, with Violette Verdy and Leslie Peck," says Fagone. "They were incredible ballet resources at my disposal and I grew a lot." She found that the university experience clarified her professional goals, rather than distracting her from them. "It made me focus on what was important in my life, my priorities," remembers Fagone. "I was going there for the best training, not to have the typical college experience."

Committed to returning to company life, and guided to Richmond Ballet through Peck, she traveled to Columbus, Ohio, in the spring of her sophomore year to audition for RB, where she secured another apprenticeship. Thirteen years later, Fagone's two years at IU were clearly a stepping stone that led to a successful and fulfilling career.

While exile into a gap year can be uncomfortable and disheartening, it does not have to be a career ender. "In this business, stuff never goes according to plan," says Meeusen. "You have to keep a level head." The passionate drive that pushed these artists to prove themselves and excel outside of company life is the same force that eventually brought them back into the professional fold.

Don't Just Survive, Thrive

If you haven't been hired into a company full-time, it's still possible to have a worthwhile year. A brief time-out can, in fact, be a game changer. Here are some tips for staying productive and motivated.

1. Be resourceful. Take stock of any special skills and support systems, whether financial, social or emotional, that you already have access to, such as your family and friends, your school affiliations, and your work or academic history. Use whatever resources you have to establish an affordable place to live, a part-time job to pay the bills and a relationship with teachers who can help take you to the next level.

2. Maintain a consistent training schedule. Without the structure of a company or school setting, you're responsible for your own training regimen. Commit to a regular class and cross-training schedule—and stick to it—to ensure you'll be in top form come audition season.

3. Look for performance opportunities. Some companies look for supplemental dancers to fill their corps de ballet for large productions like Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Giselle. In addition, many schools hire guest soloists to fill lead Nutcracker roles. On top of providing income and connections, guesting gigs can also be a great way to keep up your performing chops.

4. Stay focused on your long-term goal. When you feel discouraged, just remember: Audition season is only a few months away.

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1. Show Off...Your Work Ethic

Summer intensives offer a preview of company life: You'll be dancing in a variety of styles over the course of the day, and all day, everyday. But that doesn't mean you have to be company-ready on day one! Though the first day may be filled with placement classes, try not to approach every class as an audition. "This year has taught us that the work is the important thing," says Ball. "Let go of trying to impress. The best impression I ever receive as a teacher is when I see someone receptive to doing things differently, even if that means taking one step backwards initially, to be able to take two steps forward by the end of the summer."

Angelica Generosa, a principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet, clearly made a splash during her first of three summers at the Chautauqua Institution's School of Dance. At 14, she was cast to dance the pas de deux from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes in the final performance. Generosa describes her younger self as "very eager." She'll be a guest teacher at Chautauqua this summer, and says that a similar eagerness catches her attention: "Dedication, and willingness to try. That twinkle in the eyes when a step is really challenging."

2. Make Friends

Even if friends from your year-round school will be with you this summer, branch out. During breaks at the studio, you may be tempted to spend time on your phone. "Take your headphones off," suggests Margaret Severin-Hansen, director of Carolina Ballet's summer intensive. "Share that ballet video with the person sitting next to you! Their eyes might see it differently; you could learn something. Or find that you have other things in common, too."

Do things outside the studio, too, even if your social circle is limited for safety reasons to a "pod" of classmates. "Sign up for activities," says Generosa. Go on that weekend shopping trip, or out for ice cream. "Be open," she says. "These are people you might see along the way in your future."

Simon Ballet, wearing dark clothing, is shown from behind demonstrating ecart\u00e9 arms while in front of him, a class of teenage ballet students perform d\u00e9velopp\u00e9 ecart\u00e9 devant on pointe in a medium-size studio. The dancers, all girls, wear leotards, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Simon Ball leads class at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

Courtesy CPYB

3. Stay Healthy

"The first week is tough—you're going to be sore," says Ball. "Prepare yourself." He means that literally. Before your program begins, ramp up cross-training, especially cardio to build your stamina. Severin-Hansen recommends you also keep dancing. It no longer matters that your regular school might be on break: We now know it's possible to take virtual classes from home or in a rented studio. If you're on pointe, make sure to put the shoes on every day, at the very least for some relevés. Keep the skin on your toes tough; the last thing you want is to be sidelined by blisters.

If you are recovering from an injury or managing something persistent like tendonitis, take action even further in advance. Find out if your intensive provides access to physical therapy, and if not, make a plan before you leave home. Learn exercises and massage techniques that you can do on your own, and ask about virtually checking in with your regular doctor or PT. Once you arrive, says Ball, communicate with your instructors. "Chances are it's a common ballet injury that teachers understand. They'll be able to help you."

During her summer intensives, Generosa often suffered flare-ups of inflammation. "I knew the tendonitis in my knees was from over turning out, and in my ankles from lifting my heels in plié." She was able to alleviate some of her pain by dancing more thoughtfully, addressing those habits. She also got creative about taking care of her tendons during off-hours. "I basically did ice baths in Chautauqua Lake."

4. Deal With Disappointment Constructively

Whether you're placed in a lower level than you'd like or were hoping for a soloist role that went to someone else, disappointment is understandable. Try, on your part, to understand too. The faculty may believe you'll thrive more in that particular group, or see a technical issue better solved by not pushing you too fast. If you're not sure exactly what you should be working on, ask. "Trust that you can make the most of your experience, whatever level you're in," says Ball. "Don't be afraid of the conversation."

5. Avoid Drama

Competition is inevitable, but unproductive competition is unnecessary, and bullying unacceptable. Severin-Hansen lays down a very clear guideline: "Nobody should ever feel uncomfortable." If you hear or see anything that bothers you—whether directed at you or someone else—don't hesitate to speak up. "If there's even one person creating drama, you feel it in the class. Summer is short. There's no room for that." Tell the resident advisor in the dorms, or bring the problem to the school administration.

Angelica Generosa performs an arabessque elong\u00e9 on pointe while her partner stands behind her holding her waist and with his left leg in tendu. She holds her left hand on her hip and extends her right arm out to the side with her palm up. Angelica wears a purple leotard, black tights and a white Romantic tutu while Kyle wears a yellow shirt, black tights and tan slippers.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Angelica Generosa (shown here in rehearsal with Kyle Davis) made notes of corrections she'd received and variations she'd worked on during her summer intensives to help retain what she had learned.

Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB

6. Fuel the Long Day

Depending on your housing arrangement this summer, you may be on your own for buying or preparing your own meals. Generosa recalls her first time living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food: "I wanted to try everything: pizza, chicken tenders, the salad bar, the dessert section—that was also my introduction to coffee." She found, however, that caffeine and sugar rushes would give way to energy crashes, and soon enough her better knowledge prevailed. "I told myself, 'Angelica, get your protein, vegetables, complex carbs—the right kind of energy.'"

Masking requirements may make snacking at the studios slightly more difficult. Nonetheless, there will almost certainly be somewhere you can safely have a nibble in between classes, whether that's a dancers' lounge or socially distanced in the studio itself. Make sure you always have something with you that's easy to munch on during breaks. Ball recommends protein bars or fruits and veggies. "Hydrating is huge," he adds, and suggests bringing packets of powdered electrolyte supplements to add to your water.

7. Retain Corrections

Take a moment each evening, Severin-Hansen advises, to write a few things down. "Say the whole class got a general correction, like 'Use your head.' The person who takes notes will think about it: 'When could I have used my head?' It's all about how you come back the next day and improve."

Generosa set a goal for herself to get better every day. To accomplish this, she would stay late to practice, she says, "so my body could adjust to what I was trying to achieve in that class." If you're inclined to follow her example, ask a friend to practice with you. You can film each other to get a glimpse of your own progress.

At the end of her Chautauqua summers, Generosa made notes of some things she had worked on and which variations she'd learned. "Then it wasn't like I left and that was that. I brought the summer experience with me, for my whole year."

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